Resistance: extraordinary story of mime artist who led Jewish children to safety

Jesse Eisenberg plays Marcel Marceau in Resistance

Jesse Eisenberg plays Marcel Marceau in Resistance - Credit: Archant

Muswell Hill actor Louise Morell appears opposite Jesse Eisenberg as Marcel Marceau’s mother in a film about his wartime heroics

Muswell Hill actor Louise Morell appears in Resistance out on Netfilx March 27

Muswell Hill actor Louise Morell appears in Resistance out on Netfilx March 27 - Credit: Archant

Those of a certain age will remember Marcel Marceau - or his stage persona Bip The Clown - as the archetypal French mime artist, pretending to chase butterflies and walk against the wind.

But a new film reveals that before he donned the white facepaint, he was a resistance fighter who saved Jewish orpans from the Nazis.

Resistance stars Hollywood actors Jesse Eisenberg, Ed Harris amd Clemence Poesy alongside Muswell Hill actress Louise Morell as Marceau’s mother Anne.

“It’s the most unbelievable story but it’s not a part of his life he talked much about,” she says.

File image, dated 29-11-1962. Veteran French mime artist Marcel Marceau, who has died, aged 84.

File image, dated 29-11-1962. Veteran French mime artist Marcel Marceau, who has died, aged 84. - Credit: PA

“In interviews, he was totally dedicated to promoting mime as an art form akin to ballet, and made attempts to set up mime schools, but he didn’t mention his incredible bravery, risking his life to save children.”

Written and directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz, the film starts with the lead up to WWII and German troops massing on the Polish border.

Most Read

“Fairly soon after the beginning of the war he and his brother became involved with the French resistance,” says the British Jewish actor, who had two key scenes with Eisenberg playing the 17-year-old Marcel.

“He grew up in Alsace near Strasbourg which was a risky area so close to Germany, his father Charles was a kosher butcher and his mother Anne was from Ukraine.”

Originally called Mangel, at the outbreak of war, Marcel’s family fled to Limoges where he and his brother Alain adopted the more French surname Marceau.

“He was a fantastic artist and changed his name by forging his papers. Later he forged new passports for the children.”

There they got involved with the French Jewish Resistance in France - leading Jewish children to safety into neutral Switzerland. Inspired by a childhood cinema trip to see a Charlie Chaplin film, Marcel first used mime to keep the children quiet as they escaped over the mountains.

“The whole story is inspirational and incredibly heroic,” says Morell.

“They made this incredible journey through the Alps with young Jewish children disguised as Scouts and saved the life of hundreds.”

After the liberation of Paris in 1944, multi-lingual Marcel became a liaison worker for Patton’s third army and gave his first proper performance to 3,000 troops. (General Patton is played by Hollywood veteran Ed Harris)

Tragically, although Anne survived, Charles was rounded up in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz where he was murdered.

With his striped pullover and battered silk opera hat, Bip would always carry an air of life’s tragedy and fragility.

Before his death in 2007 at the age of 84, Marceau was awarded the Legion D’Honneur and France’s National Order of Merit.

Filmed in Prague and Bavaria - where pre-war Jewish shop signs were created in a small village - Resistance was “a fabulous experience” for Morell.

“Jonathan Jakubowicz was fantastic to work with and created a feeling on set that it was a special project. There was a real family atmosphere.”

But she was nervous when she first met the star of The Social Network and Now You See Me, because of her relative inexperience in screen work.

“He asked what other films I had done and I said I had mostly worked on stage, but he was incredibly generous and lovely - he loves the stage and writes for it.

“After that we were like two jobbing actors talking shop, and we improvised a couple of mother and son moments.

“Although he is in his mid 30s and playing young, he looks very youthful. There is a very moving family scene where Marcel’s older brother has returned from seeing some operation with the army and his father is saying ‘I don’t believe it, I am not going anywhere’ but the mother, who was born in Ukraine where there were Jewish pogroms says he has to take it seriously.

“She says that every generation people come out against Jewish people, and we all have to go. Marcel decides to go to help the children and you can see him changing from a teenager and becoming a man.”

Morell’s next acting job is as a Czech Holocaust survivor in Matthew Campling’s After The Unthinkable at the King’s Head Islington in November.

She plays Frida, who marries one of the British soldiers who liberated her from Belsen and returns with him to the UK.

“It’s about their lives together and the aftermath of trauma - the impact of her experiences not just on herself but on her family.”

Like Marceau, Frida isn’t keen to dicuss her past.

“She doesn’t want anybody to know she was Jewish, and decides not to talk about it, but to plough ahead and make a good life.

“She thinks that’s the best way but it seeps out in different ways.”

And she adds: “I loved that the script looks at post war Britain, how people’s lives were completely shattered and how they rebuilt them.”

Resistance was nominated for Knight Marimbas best film award at the Miami Film Festival earlier this month and screens on Netflix on March 27.